At a recent conference, the Alphabet executive chairman was totally stumped by one of his company’s now-banned brain teaser interview questions.
The ultimate trick questions
The question Schmidt was asked was what a pirate captain should do with his treasure if over half of his crew being unhappy with his decision meant facing certain death. There is no clear-cut, right or wrong answer to this, of course. Like all trick questions, the point is to watch the demeanour of the interviewee as they grapple with the answer.
Humour and humility go a long way in these situations, and to graciously admit defeat and offer your imperfect suggestion is probably the best tack to take. Schmidt did just this, offering 51% of his crew the booty and the other 49% shares in internet companies!
The questions that got banned
Google recruiters are no longer allowed to ask brain teasers; however, out of interest, it is worth looking at some of these nightmare interview questions to decode the intent behind them – and to be grateful that none of us will have to face them!
How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle? This is the perfect specimen of the trick question that is designed to throw you off course and slip into overthinking the answer.
Most people instantly start calculating, but the answer is obvious when revealed: ten dollars a window. Or seven or five dollars; the amount is not relevant. The question is pitched in this way to see whether you can think laterally and see the wood for the trees.
Another example is ‘In a country where people only want boys, people who have boys have no more babies. People who have girls continue until they have a boy. What is the proportion of boys to girls in the country?’ The answer, of course, is that the male to female ratio will always be around 50:50, but the temptation is to get sucked into crazy calculations!
It could be you!
Although such questions are now banned, it is always worth bearing in mind that an interviewer can throw a tricky question at you at any moment. The point is not to be able to answer everything perfectly but to approach the whole interview with flexibility, awareness and humour. If you stay relaxed, open and attentive in the face of difficult questions, you will shine.
Like Schmidt, you can ask for clarification, you can stumble, or you can ask for the question to be repeated. You can even ask for more time or to return to the issue later. As long as you tackle the question with the right approach, there will be no right or wrong answer.
As Ella Fitzgerald famously sang: “Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it!”
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